DILEMMA: 7 Tips When Working with an Artist/Songwriter in the Studio
Photo: Greg Haygood
There is no doubt an art to the magic that happens in studios across the country, which produces some of our favorite records on the charts. Finding the balance that creates a comfortable environment for the artist to give their best performance while maintaining a professional environment that’s efficient and yields the desired result can indeed be difficult.
We wanted to get a little insight into that process so we invited Philadelphia Chapter member and music producer, Dan “Dilemma” Thomas to share some of his top tips when working in the studio with an artist or songwriter.
I like to take 15-20 minutes before we start recording to just to talk to everyone in the room to get an idea of everyone’s energy. During this time I’m taking mental notes on how everyone receives information and also how they give it. These are a few of the things I’ve learned through sessions over the years.
Be overly prepared
Make sure you know the song or beat you’re recording to in and out. Tempo, key signature, etc. Have the Protools or logic session ready to go. Make sure the microphone is working and ready to go. Have some pre-set EQs and reverbs ready to use on the fly. Make sure your moving in tandem with the artist. Don’t move too fast where you’re messing up but don’t take forever and kill the vibe either.
A BIG part of creating music is being comfortable. The artist has to be in the right mindset to record the right way. So sometimes it’s up to you and the engineer to be the psychologist, best friend, motivational coach, fashion expert, relationship guru and all of the above. Do what you have to do to get their mind ready to record. Choose your words wisely
Create the Vibe
As the producer of the record it’s your job to create and keep the vibe in the studio session. It’s key that you watch over the vibe and energy of the session. So many things could throw that off. (Too many people, slow engineer, broken equipment, a dirty studio, a lack of focus, or even saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Try to find out what the artist or songwriter likes in a session. Fruit, water, red M&Ms, whatever. Set the mood, light candles or a peaceful scent. Continue to check on everyone and make sure everyone in the session is comfortable especially the engineer.
Communication is Key
You’ll have maybe 60 seconds to learn how to talk to the artist while their recording. Everyone is different. Some artist I’ve work with want you to talk to them after every take, some don’t what you to talk to them until their done everything. Commutation between you and the artist and you and the engineer is important and could make or break your vibe in the studio. Showing up early to the session getting a chance to talk to the engineer is important it get an idea of how you might have to talk to them.
Another key factor to bringing out the best in an artist is TRUST. If they trust you then they’ll listen and follow you. Now this one is tricky because it may take some time for it to happen but it’s very important that you start to show that you can be trusted and you know what you’re talking about lol. If you don’t like something say that. Be honest but also choose your words wisely. If you like something, give them praise. Don’t use any words that feel or sound negative. Find the balance of encouragement and constructive criticism. Again it’s important you keep a good vibe.
SAVE EVERYTHING! SAVE, SAVE, SAVE, and SAVE again!
The quickest way to kill a vibe and probably never get hired as an engineer is to lose the “money” take or the whole recording! Last thing you need to explain is why/how you lost the files after the artist or songwriter already wrote to it. Don’t be that person! Save everything, even when they say “Delete that, I can do it better,” still save it. If they can’t do it better then you’ll be stuck for another 20 minutes trying to capture the perfect take again. Always back up your sessions on 2 hard drives, please take it from me, it’s always better to be safe than to lose an opportunity for a placement because you lost the files. I’ve seen relationships ruined because someone was careless with the files.
Take a break
It’s important that you give yourself, the engineer and the artist some time to come up for air! Sometimes working hit records can be stressful mentally. Take 10/15mins to walk away from it. Find something funny on YouTube to play or take some selfies if the vibe is cool, or even have a dance challenge in the studio. Ha! Do what you need to relax again and then come get back to recording with fresh ears, energy and mindset. BUT if the artist or songwriter catches a vibe do not take a break in the middle of a vibe, wait until it’s over then take a break.
Side note: Split Sheets
I’ll keep this short and sweet. Make sure you keep track of who worked of the song with you whether that’s horn players, other producers, or writers. Make sure you have everyone’s full real name. You don’t want miss anyone – It’s not a good look. This is why the Metadata conversation is so important!
Check out this list of Guidelines & Recommendations here for documenting technical contributions.
Dan "Dilemma" Thomas is a music producer and recording engineer based in Philadelphia, Pa. He has worked with artists like Meek Mill, Jazmine Sullivan, Earl St. Clair and many more. Follow his work @officialdilemma.